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Kenya’s climate refugees feel the heat of changing weather

Author: Bob Koigi

By Bob Koigi

Teresia Kimuhu sits pensively on her two acres of land, with her hand supporting her chin, in what has recently become her signature pose as she stares blankly at rows of maize crops that have been in the farm for the last three months but which have barely grown and remain stunted. She had hoped this season, things would be different and that she would get some yields. Hailing from the Central part of Kenya, considered among the most fertile in the country, it is ironical that her land is a shadow of its prosperous former self.

The trend has been similar for the last four seasons. Scorched soils, no rains and no yields. She has spent a lot of money in preparing the land but the rains have ended up disappointing her. The land has been her source of income for the last four decades, feeding and educating her three children after she lost her husband to a road accident two decades ago. His two sons, Daniel Njuguna and Eustace Ngotho, who found solace and income in the farm have fled to the city in search of better income opportunities following seasons of failed rains. They now do menial jobs in the city. As hope of any meaningful yields dwindle, Teresia has been contemplating joining his children in the city to eke out a living.

Kilometers away from Teresia’s farm, Titus Sifuna, a retired teacher and former farmer in Western Kenya has moved to Githogoro, one of the sprawling slums in Kenya’s capital Nairobi. He has found life and little income as a cobbler, which earns him at least one dollar on a good day. He tries occasional night watchman jobs to supplement his income. He has to do this to support his wife and two children back in the village. As a farmer growing maize, beans and soya in Western Kenya two years ago, he used to earn over $1000 per harvest which was enough to take care of his family. But agriculture was his mainstay and with the failed rains, he had no choice but to move to the city. Teresia and Titus represent a growing number of people who are fleeing their homes and traditional sources of livelihoods as rising seas, failed rains and persistent drought takes a toll on them. They have been christened climate refugees and are estimated to be over 10 million globally.

The situation is so dire that according to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent, climate change disasters have overtaken war and persecution as the biggest cause of population displacement.

Nowhere is this problem more pronounced than Africa where over 80 per cent of the population relies on agriculture for income and livelihoods. The East and Horn of Africa are particularly feeling the heat of the weather changes with the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fourth Assessment Report positing that the two areas are headed for even glimmer times and will be among those severely affected by prolonged drought and desertification. “Vagaries of weather have hit our country now more than ever. The sad bit is that farmers who earn a living relying on the rainfall are yet to grasp what climate change is or the magnitude of it to allow them embrace alternative means of survival, especially at a time when the effects are bound to get worse. We are doing our best to create this awareness, but it will take time,” said Dr. Francis Oduor from Kenya’s Ministry of Agriculture Livestock and Fisheries. The country has had to stare at unprecedented phenomena like tea frost which in 2012 cost tea farmers up to 60 per cent of their income. Tea is one of the country’s prime foreign exchange earners fondly referred to as the country’s green gold.

When the frost struck, it cost the country over $15million in failed exports in that year alone. It is such harrowing tales that worry policy makers who have predicted that it could get worse for other key agricultural produce grown in the country and continentally. A study by World Bank dubbed turn down the heat; Climate extremes, regional impact and the case for resilience, says that by 2040 temperatures will have increased by 2°C, which will see a dip in maize yields of up to 22 per cent, wheat by up to 17 per cent and sorghum by 17 per cent. These are some of the staple foods in majority of African countries.